Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the Secure Estate

A report, published recently, showcases a new ESOL screening tool and set of teaching materials designed to enhance both screening and teaching delivery in prisons in England.

Learning and Work Institute (L&W) in partnership with De Montfort University, Leicester and The Bell Foundation, developed the tool and resources as part of the Improving Language, Improving Lives project, which helps to support prisoners to integrate more quickly into their new environment, and are now free to access.

When prisoners with an ESOL need arrive in prison, understanding what educational support is available and accessing suitable provision can be a significant challenge. Without the right training or tools, prison staff can lack confidence in identifying a prisoner’s language-need and signposting them to an ESOL class. ESOL tutors themselves often have little support, training opportunities or access to teaching resources.

In recognition of these challenges the Improving Language, Improving Lives project was established in a bid to fill these gaps within the prison education system in England.

The screening tool can help prisons build a consistent and robust approach to identifying prisoners with an ESOL need through raising awareness of prisoners’ ESOL needs and developing the skills of support staff and volunteers. The tool can be easily embedded within existing systems and used to facilitate referral into ESOL provision from a range of sources.

One prison has already seen the benefits for both prisoners and staff:

“Through the screening tool, we’ve been able to buddy up individuals identified as having an ESOL need, mentor them, and make sure that they receive help much sooner than they would have ordinarily… this ‘diagnostic’ will save a lot of time and wasted effort, as so many potential ESOL learners slip through the net in the early stages of arriving in prison.” Deputy Education Manager

The teaching and learning resources help support teaching staff to create meaningful and relevant content for their learners. Inspired and shaped by L&W’s Citizens’ Curriculum initiative, the resources gained national recognition at the ELTons awards for Local Innovation in English Language Teaching in June 2019.

“I have found the learning resources in the Citizens’ Curriculum to be very helpful.  The learners enjoy the lessons and have responded well to the activities.  It has been a very useful project and one that will help the learners flourish and cope better with the difficult environment in which they find themselves.” ESOL Tutor

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation, commissioners of the assessment tool, said: 

“There is very little information about the nature and scale of ESOL needs in prison as this is not routinely assessed and the data is not captured nationally. This project set out to develop a tool to enable the better identification of ESOL needs, and ESOL teaching and learning resources to support tutors who work in prisons and rehabilitation centres. This is helping both those working in prisons, and prisoners and ex-offenders themselves who have English as a second or additional language. Staff are able to support learners to progress into further education, work and resettlement in the community as well as in prison, which is a benefit to everyone."

Alex Stevenson, Head of English, maths and ESOL at Learning and Work Institute said:

“The acute need for ESOL teaching and learning resources in the secure estates was identified during the first stages of the project. We used the Citizens’ Curriculum – a locally-led, innovative and holistic model of learning which taps into what really engages and motivates learners to learn, by putting their active participation in shaping the content at the centre – to inspire the development of the resources. Through this project and wider work, it is clear that the approach has a real impact on learners’ motivation, social and civic engagement and self-efficacy. It is fantastic to see how well-received and valued the resources have been by practitioners and stakeholders in the sector – demonstrating that the need for high quality, engaging resources for ESOL learners in prisons has been met”

Ross Little from De Montfort University’s Criminology and Criminal Justice programme said:

“The language screening tool helps in two key ways: it helps staff working in prison identify language needs more easily and more quickly and also helps provide an evidence base for the future about the learning provision needed in prisons.”

Improving Language, Improving Lives: Supporting ESOL in the secure estate project is commissioned by The Bell Foundation, and jointly delivered by Learning and Work Institute and De Montford University’s criminology and criminal justice programme.

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